Give the Coalition an inch on the NBN, will they take everyone's last mile?
The National Broadband Network is back in the headlines this week after Malcolm Turnbull's address to Australia's tech media at the Kickstart 2013 technology conference. Clearly better informed than some of his colleagues on either side of the political fence, Turnbull articulated his points well and gave as good as he got when it came to sparring with journalists.
Labor's determination to run fibre into each and every dwelling is certainly an admirable attempt to wipe out this digital divide within our suburbs and streets.
One point that Turnbull kept coming back to was that Labor's Fibre to the Premises plan is hell-bent on running fibre into almost every nook and cranny of the country, whereas the Coalition wants to undertake a full cost-benefit analysis before deciding which technologies are best for each area.
From a financial perspective it's hard to argue against the idea of performing a cost-benefit analysis on any IT project, let alone something of this significance. Yet from a technological perspective, as soon as you start cutting corners on a national fibre network you risk propagating the patchwork coverage problems which created the need for the NBN in the first place. For example people stuck on slow copper in HFC cable areas seem like they'll be trapped in no man's land for a long time under the Coalition's plans to keep using Telstra and Optus' cable networks and focus the NBN rollout elsewhere. Metro DSL fringe dwellers are not as badly off as some people, but they're certainly not the lucky ones just because the cable runs down the next street.
Perhaps the most reasonable NBN compromise which Turnbull put forward was to run Fibre to the Basement in many multi-dwelling units and then use the building's wiring for the last mile. In this case it would be more like the last few metres, with the short copper run having far less impact on the connection than a Fibre to the Node copper connection running to a box several streets away.
Multi-Dwelling Units were some of the big losers in the HFC cable rollouts, as Telstra and Optus would often only run the cable to the first dwelling and then move on. Hooking them all up was too expensive so many people were left in the lurch. Labor's determination to run fibre into each and every dwelling is certainly an admirable attempt to wipe out this digital divide within our suburbs and streets. But Fibre to the Basement would seem to offer a reasonable compromise which delivers a lot more bang for our NBN buck. It would also see some people connected faster. Are some of those who oppose it more concerned about ideology than technology?
Of course once you give an inch on the idea of fibre for all, where does it end? As fibre speeds improve, would these Multi-Dwelling Units become the next generation of pair-gain victims? Who else would get a near enough is good enough NBN connection? Metro DSL fringe dwellers in HFC areas would certainly be easy targets. Why run fibre past the HFC cable to that lone house at the end of the street which missed out on cable? Why not simply offload those homes onto VDSL or some other compromise? Turnbull says that the Coalition would eventually replace the HFC networks with fibre, but cost-cutting measures could see that time frame blow out further and further. The NBN's dream of a level playing field could slip away.
What do you think? Is Turnbull's Fibre to the Basement proposal a reasonable compromise, or is giving any ground on Fibre to the Premises a long-term mistake?